In the 2020 Class AAA state quarterfinal, the Alexandria girls basketball team took second-ranked Becker to the brink. After a narrow eight-point win a year earlier, the Bulldogs left no doubt at Perham High School on Wednesday night during the rematch.
Third-ranked Becker (17-3) proved why it's a threat to compete for a state championship with a 76-52 win over eighth-ranked Alexandria (17-5). Alexandria held a 7-2 lead after a three-point play by senior Myah Kremer, but it was all Becker from there.
"They're definitely a skilled team," Alexandria head coach Wendy Kohler said. "They were in synch tonight. They did a nice job of setting up their dribble-drive offense."
The Bulldogs had nine girls score in the first half. Six minutes before the intermission, Alexandria senior Lilly Horn hit a three to cut the lead to 17-12. But Becker's offense was already off and running as the Bulldogs finished the half on an 18-9 run.
Alexandria struggled to find an answer for the Bulldogs' ball movement from all areas, which led to open shots. The Bulldogs' press defense also caused problems for the Cardinals offensively.
Alexandria sophomore Morgan Jones was a bright spot defensively off the bench. Jones hauled down tough rebounds in the paint to go along with her six points despite giving up height to Becker's forwards.
"(Jones) loves to play physical," Kohler said. "She's developed well through a relatively short season. It's been great to see her improve the way she has, particularly over the last month. I feel like she's really settled in that physicality role for us."
After leading 35-21 at the half, Becker senior guard Courtney Nuest started the second frame with the first eight points. The Bulldogs increased their lead to as large as 29 points.
In her final game as a Cardinal, senior Alayna Strand put together a great shooting night. Her 17 points led all Alexandria scorers.
"She's got that nice wingspan and can guard any position on the floor with her athleticism," Kohler said. "She does a great job of getting up there and grabbing some great boards and getting to the hoop. That's what you want out of your seniors.
Alexandria says goodbye to six seniors who helped make the state tournament in back-to-back seasons. Along with Stand and Kremer, Jaya Hatlestad, Cate Bloom, Mataya Hoelscher and Lilly Horn added to the loaded legacy that is Alexandria girls basketball.
"The thing that's been special about this group is it's been a team of no stars," Kohler said. "We didn't start the season until Jan. 4, but our six seniors played like they were in midseason form. That allowed the underclassmen more time to develop. They bought them the time to let them find roles on this team. They made each other better and complemented each other so well while showing such great leadership."
For Becker, a quarterfinal win puts them one step closer to getting a shot at the state championship game it never got from a year earlier. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the girls state basketball tournament prematurely before the Bulldogs could play in the title game. After beating Alexandria 63-55 in last year's quarterfinal, Becker cruised to the championship game with a 96-75 win over Waconia.
"I know our girls are disappointed, but Becker is a whole different animal," Kohler said. "They're a whole different beast. That's a really tough team. They're a team that continues to get better after not losing anybody to graduation last year. I believe they were on their way to winning the state title last year, and they're going to have a real good shot at it again this year too."
No replacing the big-stage feeling
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken away so many things in the sports world over the last year. Alexandria was there for the beginning of it when they took on Red Wing in the consolation bracket hours before the Minnesota State High School League shut down the remainder of the tournament.
This year, the Cardinals played their first-round game at Perham High School instead of the University of Minnesota. Schools were seeded in groups of four based on North and South for all boys and girls brackets across all classes.
"I felt like we could've got the fifth seed in a normal year," Kohler said. "It wasn't meant to be that way this year."
Quarterfinal games were played at regional sites instead of in Minneapolis at the Target Center and the University of Minnesota. Tournaments are also single-elimination instead of teams getting the chance to play for consolation and third-place titles.
"It's disappointing not to get a chance to come back and play after a loss like we did against Red Wing last year," Kohler said. "But we understand why. We have nothing to hang our heads on this year."
Kohler commended the Perham staff for doing their best to replicate the feeling of being in the Twin Cities and getting to experience the atmosphere of a typical state tournament.
"There's nothing like getting on the bus and driving down Highway 94 to play at Williams Arena or the Target Center," Kohler said. "Our parents, fans, administration and community did their part in making it feel like normal because we did qualify for the state tournament. I have to compliment Perham and their staff. It was first class. They rolled out the red carpet for us. It's a beautiful arena they have. They did what they could to give it a state tournament feel, but nothing replaces the Target Center and Williams Arena. That's how it was meant to be this year."
ALEXANDRIA 21 31 - 52
BECKER- 35 41 - 76
ALEXANDRIA SCORING- Alayna Strand 17, Myah Kremer 6, Lilly Horn 8, Morgan Jones 6, Cate Bloom 3, Mataya Hoelscher 5, Chloe Scholl 3, Jaya Hatlestad 2